Glenwood Springs: A Walk Through History

By Kathy Kaiser

GlenwoodpoolhouseThere’s a point on the bridge in Glenwood Springs  that crosses over Interstate 70, railroad tracks, and the Colorado River, where you can feel the pulse not only of this crossroads city, but of the country itself. A steady roar and flow of cars and trucks head, in one direction, toward the canyons and deserts of Utah and in the other direction to Denver and the plains. The Colorado River that started as a trickle in Rocky Mountain National Park to the east has grown wide here as it flows west toward Mexico in the Gulf of California. And you can hear the train whistle from just about anywhere in town as coal, cars and humans are transported from one end of the continent to the other.

It’s also a place where past and present meet. Looking north from the bridge is the historic Hotel Colorado. Modeled on a 16th century Medici Palace in Italy, both presidents William Taft and Theodore Roosevelt stayed at different times, as well as Chicago gangsters, including Al Capone, in the ’20s. Slightly below and in front of the hotel is the original sandstone bathhouse built in 1890 for the hot springs pool, which steams in the cold air. To the south is downtown, a tight jumble of buildings from which the Hotel Denver and the 1904 historic railroad station, with its small railroad museum and two turreted towers, stand out.

GlenwoodtrainstationEvery day, two Amtrak trains pull in and out of the station. If you happen to be sitting at the brewpub in the Hotel Denver drinking, say, a Hanging Lake Honey Ale, you might be lucky enough to watch the train pull in and disgorge passengers who wait on the brick platform with their suitcases. It’s a scene from another era.

There’s not a lot of cities where you can see so much in one place, where exploration can be done on your feet rather than from a car window. In a world where most towns are spread out and most commercial strips aren’t safe for pedestrians, it’s a treat to be able to walk, meander and see this historic city from different viewpoints. Examine it close up, even wander into the canyon that borders Glenwood’s east side. And Colorado’s “shoulder” seasons, the time between when skis and snowshoes are put away and hiking boots and bikes are brought out, is a good time to experience this town. Lodging is plentiful and inexpensive and the crowds are small.

Glenwood is a mere three hours west of Denver, depending on road conditions, or six hours by train. Although an all-day venture, the train trip is half the fun, winding through roadless canyons, so you’re seeing a landscape that hasn’t changed much since buffaloes, miners and cowboys ruled the land. The ride through Glenwood Canyon, where you can admire the canyon walls from the vantage of the train cars’ domed roof, is itself worth the price of the trip.

GlenwoodSpringspoolThe train deposits you in the central part of the city, across from the hot springs and hotels. Here, you have your choice of two historic hotels, Hotel Colorado or Hotel Denver. There’s also Hot Springs Lodge connected to the hot springs pool, and several chains, plus locally owned motels, ranging from inexpensive to elegant.

A few blocks’ walk from the hot springs is a tram ride up Iron Mountain to Glenwood’s newest tourist attraction, the Glenwood Caverns and Historic Fairy Caves. These limestone caves with fantastic formations were created over millions of years by cataclysmic geologic forces that also created the Rocky Mountains. First discovered at the end of the 19th century, the caves were closed to the public in 1917, while exploration continued and new rooms were discovered. The caves reopened to the public in 1999. In April 2003, the tram started taking tourists up to a visitor center with gift shop, restaurant with an overlook that makes any meal special, and a platform that gives you a bird’s eye view of three canyons or valleys.

Take in the seemingly impenetrable Glenwood Canyon to the southeast, the Frying Pan River Valley stretching to Aspen and a view of the symmetrical, volcanically produced Mount Sopris. Interstate-70 heading west with the Colorado River becomes a thin brown braid among the dark hills. Directly below, Glenwood Springs sits at the juncture of these three canyons, enclosed on all sides by the steep mountains, the city an orderly grid among the more irregular shapes of nature.

GlenwodcavesIn the bright sun outside the tourist center, a guide stands ready to lead you down a winding road to the entrance, and from there you’re plunged into another world: where no air moves, no water flows, where nothing lives except a few unseen bats and the roots of junipers a hundred feet up on a hillside, reaching down for water. The tour starts with the original caves, which have suffered over the years from vandalism and ignorance. Still, there’s enough eye candy to keep a tour group of families, seniors, and young couples gawking. From the yellow, crumbly ceiling hangs stalactites, cave bacon (wavy strips of multi-colored rock) and soda straws (delicate columns of calcite). From the sides of the cave and the floor ooze cave popcorn and flowstone. Descending the stairs, look down a narrow chute—only 8 ½ inches wide in some places—and see where cave explorers first made their way up this room. It’s not something a claustrophobic should dwell upon, especially the fact that cavers have only headlamps to show the way.

In the tour group, we have the luxury of stairs and lamps throwing light on the rock faces and illuminating some of the more spectacular formations. It comes as something of a shock, then, when the guide takes us to the most recently discovered chamber and briefly turns off the lights. We’re left with pitch blackness, not even enough light to see our hands. But when the lights come back on and the rest of the cave is illuminated, it’s a sight worth enduring the darkness. In front of us is a room full of strange shapes and sizes and formations, undisturbed by humans. For centuries a little bit of water mixed with limestone has been allowed to drip, drip, drip, and create a landscape that looks more the product of Disney than nature. One can almost understand why cavers would want to maneuver through darkness and tiny openings to discover such visions. And, these caves hold more.

Glenwoodcave2jpgThe caverns were created by the same forces that produced the hot springs, several thousand feet below, along the Colorado River, originally used by the Ute Indians for healing and rejuvenation. Today, visitors have two choices for getting hot and relaxed. The best known is the Hot Springs Lodge & Pool, the world’s largest outdoor hot springs pool and a famous resort for more than a century. One smaller pool, at a temperature of 104 degrees, is a place just to sit, feel your limbs turn to jelly, and watch the steam rise off the water. The second, and bigger pool, has water cool enough at 90 degrees to swim in. Indeed, at the far end are lanes for lap swimming, a diving area and a slide (admission separate). Because the hot springs have a high sulfur content, floating on one’s back takes no effort, except to keep from falling into a deep, relaxing slumber.

Just down the street is the Vapor Caves/Yampah Spa. Excavated more than 100 years ago, the Ute Indians used similar limestone caves to sometimes punish errant braves, according to Glenwood Springs: A Quick History, by Jim Nelson. It’s a different experience from the outdoor hot springs, down the stairs into underground caverns, dark except for the bulbs illuminating the rock walls, silent except for the swishing of the water along the side of the caves, and very hot. Like a steam bath, you sit and sweat, wrapped in humid and hot air. It feels good, up to a point, and then you want to climb the stairs back out into the cool air, perhaps sit in the solarium and listen to the fountain, or get a massage, herbal wrap or facial.

Just past the Vapor Caves, the 20-mile pedestrian trail into Glenwood Canyon begins, running alongside the river and highway. It seems a long time ago when singer John Denver stood on one side of the river and threw a stone across, making a statement that a proposed four-lane highway through Glenwood Canyon would destroy one of the most beautiful and oldest canyons in Colorado.

But the four-lane highway, an engineering marvel that was 12 years in the making, has proved to be a boon for those who want to get close to the Colorado River and the thousand-foot high walls, with layers of rock that span 600 million years of geologic time. Although much of the path adjoins I-70, the highway bypasses some sections, notably the Hanging Lake trailhead. Here, you can experience the quiet and immensity of geologic history, punctuated by the cries of chickadees and canyon wrens. In the winter, the Colorado River, the original creator of this canyon, flows placidly, slow enough for a pair of mallards to float on the water. Looking up, sun streaks across the canyon walls, and the different strata of rocks resemble fractured plates on top of each other. Junipers dot the hillside, while along the river grow willow bushes, grasses and cattails.

Glenwoodcanyon017Walk the canyon, or, if the weather is warm enough, bike or roller skate. Bike rentals are available at several places in Glenwood, although many places don’t start renting until April. Along the route are rest stops, with restrooms, water and picnic tables.

A bit more sedate is a walk around the older neighborhoods of Glenwood, where small Victorians, painted in purple, green, yellow and blue, and log cabins jostle each other on tree-lined streets. A historical walking tour guide, provided at the Frontier Historical Museum, provides a history of some of the more notable buildings. At the First Presbyterian Church, 1016 Cooper Avenue, the oldest church in Glenwood, President Benjamin Harrison, in 1891, and President Roosevelt, in 1905, worshipped. The building at 312 7th Street was once the Odeon Theatre, where silent movie actor Tom Mix appeared, in 1926, while filming a movie in Glenwood Canyon.

Glenwoodbabydoebed029Tucked among the historic houses is the Frontier Historical Museum, built in 1905 for a doctor and his wife. The house has wonderful touches, including oak trim, which gives the house a solid feel. There’s a radiator with a cut-out alcove for keeping food warm, and the bed and dresser used by mining baron Horace Tabor and his second wife, Baby Doe Tabor. The bedroom set came from their hotel suite in nearby Leadville, where the couple was, for a period of time, the richest in the state of Colorado. Books, plays, and operas have been written about this couple’s rags-to riches-to-rags life.

Glenwoodbabydoedresser032Seeing the huge, carved bed and dresser and the crazy quilt made from Baby Doe’s wardrobe of silk, satin and velvet swatches makes the story of her end all the more poignant: alone, starving and freezing to death in a one-room shack in Leadville above the couple’s onetime source of wealth–the Matchless Mine.

From the museum, it’s a steady climb up the hill to another reminder of Glenwood’s historic past. The Linwood Cemetery, a half-mile walk up the edge of Jasper Mountain, supposedly contains (a matter of much debate) the remains of Doc Holliday, the legendary gunslinger who came to Glenwood in 1887 for his health, but died six months later of consumption. The West is full of such characters, but it is to Glenwood’s credit that the information placard at the cemetery’s entrance talks about Glenwood’s lesser known residents who are buried in the cemetery: the African-Americans who “helped build and nurture early Glenwood Springs.”

It seems a long slog up the hill, in dirt that tends to get deep and sticky when wet, and one is apt to gain a new appreciation of the old residents of Glenwood who would have accompanied their deceased, probably on a cart driven by horses, far above the town. But up here, among the junipers and rabbitbrush, surrounded by the tall mountains, there’s a serenity not found in modern-day Glenwood below, with its roar of traffic and busy commerce. Probably not in the old Glenwood either, with men and women eager to make a buck, find their fortune and create a new city based on their vision.


TRAIN: Amtrak: 800-USA-RAIL

“Glenwood Springs: A Quick History,” by Jim Nelson (2003), Blue Chicken Publishing, Glenwood Springs.


  • Glenwood Caverns and Historic Fairy Caves, 51000 Two Rivers Plaza Road, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601; 800-530-1635;
  • Yampah Caves/ Spa, 709 East Sixth Street, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601; 970-945-0667;
  • Frontier Historical Museum, 1001 Colorado Avenue, Glenwood Springs, CO 81601; 970-945-4448; Hours October through April: 1-4 p.m. Monday, Thursday through Saturday.

Photo credits: All photos are by Kathy Kaiser except for cave photos. The first cave photo is by Norm Thompson and the second by David Harris. Both courtesy of Glenwood Caverns.